What would you do if a drunk passenger in your car grabbed the steering wheel? Or started snorting cocaine? Or asked you to wait while he urinated against a wall?
Charlotte Uber drivers say they regularly face situations like those. And as police searched for a missing driver whose SUV was found in Maryland, his peers were wondering whether the extra cash from ferrying strangers around town is worth their lives.
Their jobs as drivers took an even darker tone Thursday when police found the body of 44-year-old Marlo Johnis Medina-Chevez, who had taken a job as an Uber driver to earn extra money for a family vacation. He left his Charlotte home Saturday night to pick up a passenger, expecting to be gone only an hour or two.
The Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office on Friday positively identified the body as Medina-Chevez, and police issued warrants charging two men with murder. The suspects are in custody in Maryland and will be extradited to Charlotte.
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Another Uber driver was shot and injured as he dropped off a passenger at a Ballantyne apartment complex just last month.
“You get extremely drunk and belligerent passengers, and also some shady characters that you know are up to no good,” said Joseph Marshall, an Uber driver for a little more than year.
“My wife and daughter also drive for them, and I’m pretty much at the point where I don’t want them to drive anymore because of things that have happened,” Marshall said. “It’s not what I would call a real safe job. Drivers will probably consider not doing it anymore.”
It doesn’t help, he and others say, that drivers feel they make less money even as Uber raises its fares.
A Facebook group for Charlotte Uber and Lyft drivers, closed to the public, has been busy with worries and tips for staying safe, said a driver named Jamie who’s driven for both ride-hailing apps for two years. She didn’t want her last name used for fear of repercussions.
Some drivers have bought Tasers and pepper spray, Jamie said, but the online discussion began well before Medina-Chevez disappeared. Recent Facebook posts include a driver whose car was shot at as he waited for a passenger at a convenience store. Another driver’s passenger grabbed for the driver’s wheel, then his chest and leg.
“It was an awful, awful experience for him,” she said, “and all we can do is call police, ask them to exit the car and rate them one star.”
Because passengers are more likely to be drunk at night, and sometimes sexually suggestive, Jamie no longer drives past dark. She carries pepper spray, tucks a small billfold into her bra and tries to be constantly alert to her surroundings.
“I really wish people would realize that we’re not paid a ton of money, an average of 60 cents a mile,” she said. “One way to make us feel safe is to sit down and behave yourself. We just want to get you from Point A to Point B safely, and when you act up in the car you’re distracting the driver.”
Uber touts the measures it takes to keep drivers safe.
Among them: no anonymous passengers. Riders have to create an account and provide their name, email address and home phone number before they can request a ride.
Uber also logs GPS data, so it knows who drivers are transporting and where they’re going, and both drivers and passengers can rate each other. Drivers can end rides at any time. Uber recently posted safety tips for drivers, developed with feedback from drivers and law enforcement.
Charlotte driver Bob – who also doesn’t want his full name used – drives up to 70 hours a week and brings home $800 to $1,000 a week. He likes the freedom to take time off when he wants.
He believes Uber could do more to protect drivers, such as by offering panic buttons to use in emergencies. The 270-pound former bus driver used to keep a screwdriver on hand but decided that would be useless against a gun.
Now Bob said he relies on faith, carrying a cross between his front seats and a statue of Jesus in the trunk.
“I try to use my instincts,” he said. “If I get a funny feeling, I keep moving.”
But trouble sometimes comes after the passenger is already aboard.
One woman, miffed that Bob hadn’t opened the car door for her at 3 a.m., announced that she had a gun in her purse and was going to shoot him in the back of the head. A couple of other passengers bragged about their crime spree – then became convinced Bob was an undercover officer.
“I kept saying, ‘let’s drop the conversation,’ and I got them to where they were going just as fast as I could,” he said. “Every Uber driver who’s been doing this for a period of time has some scary stories.”